In the whole realm of recording, there’s no place where art and technology are more hopelessly intertwined than in tracking vocals. Ask vocal-recording engineers about their craft and you’ll hear words like “feel” and “vibe” as often as “tube condenser” and “compression.”
We talked with three top vocal-recording engineers about the intricacies and challenges of recording vocals. With more than 40 years of combined experience in the recording trenches, David Reitzas, Chris Vogel and Joe Chiccarelli have worked with some of the biggest names in pop, rock and alternative music. Now, they share their wisdom with you.
THE PRIME DIRECTIVEChiccarelli: I think the most important thing is trying to figure out what you want from the vocal. What are you trying to convey with the song? It’s a matter of understanding the song, and trying to craft a sound that works right for the particular lyric or emotion or whatever.
In the end, nobody really cares what the vocal sound is like-it’s the vibe, the emotion that people buy records for. If you have a rough vocal from a tracking date that maybe isn’t the sound you want, or has some pops or distortion, who cares? If it has the vibe, that’s it. Performance is everything.
Vogel: With single vocals, the biggest challenge is just getting the performance on tape. It sounds simple, but the vocal is the most important element of the track.
Reitzas: In music with a lead vocalist, the vocal has to be taken the most seriously. That’s where my attention goes to for all phases of making a record. If you’re doing an overdub, you’ve got to see how it’s going to work with the vocal. If you’re doing a mix, you’ve got to make sure everything works in around the vocal.
Recording a vocal is not complicated. It’s much more difficult to get a great drum sound than it is to get a great vocal sound. But making a great vocal recording requires more than just getting a great sound. I have no objection to doing whatever it takes to get a performance that makes the blood boil.
MAKING ARTISTS COMFORTABLEVogel: If you can’t capture the performance and keep the artists happy, then you’re missing the whole point. You just have to make sure that they’re comfortable. That’s 90 percent of the job.
I’m not a purist in the electronic sense, but I am a purist in that I go back beyond the microphone to the performance itself. I’ll use whatever I can to make the artist comfortable. Without exception, I always ask, “Are you comfortable with the mic here?” If not, I put it where they’re comfortable. Sometimes it sounds like it’s in a closet, sometimes it sounds like it’s off-axis, but I’d rather deal with the sound and have a good performance.
If a vocalist isn’t happy with a mic hanging on a boom in front of them, then take it away. I’m not so into having the ultimate $8,000 mic if it’s not going to make the singer comfortable. It can be an intimidating thing to have a big studio mic hanging in front of your face while you’re trying to be intimate with a vocal. Steven Tyler just did not like having big mics hanging in front of him-he freaked out-so I just gave him an SM57, and he sounded great.
Reitzas: When I was recording the vocals for the Evita dying scene, Madonna was doing a take and the feel just wasn’t right. After she left the studio I had the assistant bring in a couple of couches and set it up like a bed, and got some test equipment, made a morphine drip-type bag-made it like a hospital scene. Madonna came in the next day and chuckled a little bit, then she laid down and sang the take on her back and did it in the first pass.
Normally, I use simple ambience to make the artist comfortable-some candles, low lights, making sure there’s tea and water and honey, maybe a couple plants around the area.
Chiccarelli: I’ll record anywhere. The best environment is where the artist feels the most comfortable and is going to give you the best performance. I’ve recorded in the control room, outdoors, inside live echo chambers, in bathrooms, on the porch, lying on the floor, in the closet…
MIC PLACEMENTChiccarelli: Sometimes the best thing is if the microphone is half an inch from a singer, and other times you want some air between the mic and the singer. Obviously, proximity effect works to your advantage for singers with thinner voices. I personally like to get the vocal as fat and up-front as possible as a general rule. Nowadays, it seems everybody wants that drier, closer, more personable type of vocal.
I think it’s most important to just figure out what the song is trying to say, and what the singer is trying to do. If there’s a general rule, it would be to let your ears and your heart be your guide.
Vogel: I always start with the mic right in front of the mouth, then I move it up about an inch or so and angled back. I make sure it’s at least a flattened hand width away from the mount, sort of pointing down onto the bridge of the nose. Obviously, when you’re working with someone like Alanis who’s got pipes from here to New York, I put it a little bit farther away.
Reitzas: I usually do the straightforward three baffles behind the vocalist, pop filter about four fingers away from the mic.
MICROPHONESChiccarelli: To me, vocals are not like electric guitars or drums, in that certain techniques are pretty much standard for every instrument. Every singer is totally different, every song is totally different, and what works for one singer doesn’t work for another one.
Take Danny Elfman of Oingo Boingo-the only thing he ever sounded good on was a Neumann U47 FET. For Etta James, the blues singer with whom I’ve done a lot records, it was a Neumann M49. For Tom Cochran it was the Shure SM7. I did some stuff with Beck a while ago, where he wanted a fuller sound from his voice-we used a Neumann tube U47. Tori Amos used a Milab VIP-50, which has a weird rectangular-shaped diaphragm. Alison Moyet sounded best with the Neumann TLM170. The best mic for Poco’s singer was an EV RE20, but it never had enough air for me. So we actually mounted an AKG 451 on top of the RE20 and blended in just a little bit of it to get some air on top.
The brand-new Neumann M147 sounds really good, as does the Audio-Technica AT4060. Just recently, I tried the new Audix CX-101 large-diaphragm condenser. We did an album with country singer Mindy McCready, and we tried the Audix. In the end, we ended up using an old Telefunken 251, but the Audix was in the running down to the very end. In fact, it was one particular 251 that won-the Audix actually beat another 251.
Reitzas: I don’t like to spend a lot of money on mics because they’re temperamental, and I think that they’re a little overpriced. I don’t want to spend $6,000 or $8,000 on a microphone-I’d rather spend it on gear. So for the most part, I rent microphones. I mostly use an AKG C-12 or a Neumann U67, U47 or M49. Sometimes, I use a Telefunken 251. I’m using a tube microphone almost all the time.
My new favorite mic is the Audio-Technica AT4060 tube mic. The Audio-Technica is reasonably priced and has the kind of frequency response that I like in a tube. And it can handle high SPLs, which some of the older tube mics can’t. The kind of music I’ve been doing goes from a whisper to a roar. I don’t like multimiking with different mics for the verse and the chorus. I like to record from top to bottom, so I need a mic that can handle the quiet and the loud stuff and still sound great.
It’s not always about getting the best sound, but being prepared to get the best performance. I’ve had situations where the vocalist is in the control room with an SM57, just figuring out the arrangement. I’ll always record everything, so I’ll have the take with the handheld mic. There have been occasions where we’d get a great vibe on a line or two and we’d use it right up against the recording from a $4,000 mic. If you had a listening test and you put engineers in the room and asked, “Where does the 57 come in?” they could probably tell you. But to the people that are just listening and loving the music and the song and the artist, it doesn’t matter.
Vogel: If I’m doing a male vocal, I generally reach for a Neumann U47 or M49. If I’m doing a female, it will probably be the AKG C-12 first, and then maybe I’ll switch to a Neumann U67 or a Telefunken 251. If I need one mic to cover both male and female vocals, it would probably be a 251 if it’s in good shape. I like the new RODE mics, as well as the new AKG C-12VR reissue. And the Audio-Technica 4033 is not bad for what I’ve been doing lately.
SIGNAL PROCESSINGChiccarelli: Just like you pick a microphone for a singer, I spend time auditioning mic pre’s and compressors. A lot of times I’ll use an LA-2A, sometimes an 1176. There was one singer I did not too long ago that the best compressor was the dbx 160X. It didn’t seem to color or change his vocal in any way. Sometimes Fairchilds can be really colorful. Etta James sounds best through a Focusrite Red 3 compressor.
Vocals are the most emotional thing on the record. If you don’t pack a vocal track with all the emotion in the world, there’s no point in making that record. So whatever you can do to connect the listener with the vocal, do it. If it means using a dirty, ringy old iron compressor that adds a whole lot of color and personality to the singer, then that’s the thing to do. A lot of people have bought this old gear that can give a not-so-exciting singer a lot more personality. It’s not like a cut-and-dried scientific thing. It’s much more about art and emotion. I’ve used Sansamps, telephone filters and rack guitar processors. I’ll even put vocals through guitar stomp boxes and cheap guitar pedals.
A lot of times I’ll use Neve modules because they’re really fat and smooth. If I’m going to do any type of EQ, I like to use tube stuff because it’s broader, warmer and friendlier. Pultecs and Summits are really good. I find that with the EQ of the vocal, it’s not so much what you boost but what you take out-that one little frequency that makes the vocal competitive with the other instruments in the track. Instead of boosting the upper-midrange presence frequencies, I might take them out. That allows you to turn the vocal up louder in the track.
Reitzas: My vocal chain has kind of stayed consistent over the years: a tube mic into an NTI PreQ3 into an NTI EQ3 into the Tube-Tech CL1B. Lately I’ve been going to my dB Technologies 122 A/D converter, directly to digital multitrack.
I’m lucky because most of the vocalists that I work with are veterans, and they know how to use a microphone. It makes life so much easier when you have a vocalist that knows how to act as their own compressor. Michael Bolton is one of my favorite vocalists to work with, because he has fantastic mic technique.
Vogel: I go for whatever sound I’m hearing in my head when I track, if it means no processing or tons of processing. I want to know when I do rough mixes that that’s my record. I don’t have to have a lot of guesswork in the mix.
I really like the sound of an ultra-compressed vocal. On the first Alanis album, we ran her into the dbx 160X and then into the LA-2A. I also use the Empirical Labs Distressor. I had Glenn Ballard’s studio buy two of them, so I have one in each room. The Distressor is in my standard set now. I like the fact that I can limit the heck out of the vocal-really hold the vocal back-and I don’t hear it pumping and breathing.
If I had my choice for mic pre’s, I would use the Avalon M5-I also like their compressors quite a bit. We used Demeter mic pre’s on Alanis because that’s what we’ve always used on her and that’s what we had in the beginning.
FIXING PROBLEMSChiccarelli: Sibilance is always a tough one, but I don’t get too much into de-essing when I record. A lot of times, I’ll actually dip problem frequencies with an equalizer. I’ll pull out a little 7k or 5k in the vocal. Sometimes, when I mix, I might set up two channels on the board and either high-frequency limit that second channel, or dip the EQ on the channel and just switch over. If I have a couple of words that are sibilant but everything else is fine, I’ll just switch back and forth with the automation. That will save putting a de-esser in the line, because those things can be kind of evil.
Reitzas: I have a tendency to not be worried about too much sibilance or too much popping. Sibilance and popping can always be fixed. If you don’t concern yourself with that, what you get on tape when a vocal is not “essing” or popping is more bottom end and more presence. Usually, on tape, I like to get a full-frequency sound and then just correct the problems at the mix or before it’s handed over to a mixer.
Most of the time I’m on digital. For pops, I’ll do a D-to-D to another channel, bus that channel back to the main comp channel, roll off the bottom end and just punch in around the pops. I just got Pro Tools 24 Mix+, and I’ll probably start doing more fixes with the waveform.
Vogel: I usually don’t have pop problems. If I do, I’ll use the board’s filters to roll it out. Sometimes, I use the old “tape a pencil to the mic’s grille” trick.
BEING PREPAREDReitzas: I like to do some “personal pre-production,” which means I’ll listen to a vocalist’s record if I haven’t worked with them before. I determine what their tonality is, and I combine that with what I’ve learned over the years about the characteristics of the different microphones. Nine times out of ten, I’ll pick the right microphone so when the vocalist comes in and is ready to sing, we’ll be able to keep the first take. That’s extremely important, because so much uninhibited personality and spontaneity comes out of a vocalist on that initial pass. They’re not thinking about it too much, so it’s important to me to try and guess which is the right microphone to use before they sing. Often we’ll end up with something that’s usable from the first pass, but occasionally I’ll try a different microphone to see how it works with the song.
Chiccarelli: The trickiest thing is capturing a performance, and a lot of times that means having everything set so when somebody walks in the room, you can turn the mic on, turn the tape machine on, and that’s it-first take. Etta James is an old-school blues singer; when she’s in the right frame of mind, you better have everything set because that first take is going to be it. It might be it top to bottom-flawless.
I think the biggest thing somebody can do is not burn a singer out getting sounds. Get really ready, and use a little bit of forethought about mic selection.
CONCLUSIONTechnology may have progressed in past decades, but the essence of vocal recording hasn’t changed one bit. As David Reitzas, Joe Chiccarelli and Chris Vogel have so accurately stressed, effective vocal recording isn’t about moving air-it’s about moving hearts.